Sheet Rock

C limb a creaky set of stairs to the second floor and enter a small, bookcase-filled space, where exposed brick walls are a reminder of this building’s history as a foundry that manufactured steam engines, pulleys, hitching posts and other iron goods. Today it’s home to The Foundry Music Company, one of the few remaining standalone shops in the country dedicated to sheet music, from single sheets to entire scores. Owner Marcia Killian says her nearest competitors are in greater Boston and New Jersey now that two old, beloved stores in New York City have closed.

Classical music may be playing quietly in the background, but the ambiance at Foundry Music is more reminiscent of a library. Open black shelves full of slim bound volumes are organized by instrument and genre. A wooden chair in the back corner faces the wall, where choral directors can settle in to browse the archived scores. A Mozart doll perches on the sill above a cushioned window seat. At the front counter, a glass case displays rosin, capos, metronomes—particular tools of the music trade—while an old set of miniature file drawers behind the counter holds cork grease, reeds, guitar strings and more. The back wall is covered with posters of concerts played and gone.

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Open since 1975, as the Audubon Arts District was first coming together, Foundry has hung on to the analog mission of being a place where musicians can purchase even the most obscure pieces of music and browse to their hearts’ content. But despite its low-tech feel, Foundry’s operations are tech-savvy. That’s owing to Killian, who has spent her career in information technology. Her first major task upon purchasing the store in 2014 was to migrate its inventory and customer databases off a platform that was about to expire into a new system better suited to the business’s needs. “It was a lot of work, and I was a nervous wreck when we were up that first day, but it went relatively well,” she says. Now it’s much easier to take an accurate physical inventory, and the system keeps Killian and her employees up to date on which items need to be ordered and when. She’s also moved the business online, where customers across the country are searching for out-of-print items and finding Foundry.

While buying online may seem more convenient even when customers aren’t looking for something out of the ordinary, Killian says there are still good reasons to go to a brick-and-mortar store like Foundry. For one thing, customers can compare editions: Where do the pages turn? How does it sit on the stand? How clear is the layout? “There are all kinds of aesthetic kinds of things that come into consideration,” Killian says.

Then there’s serendipity. “I used to love to go to the bookstore and just browse,” she says. “You’re looking for something that just catches your eye.” The same is true of musicians browsing for new music. And, of course, there are the ever-popular items local (and not-so-local) musicians may need: books on method and theory, Broadway show tunes, string quartets, wedding music, opera libretti. One customer from Washington, DC, always orders a score to study and take with him to Kennedy Center concerts. “So we always know what’s coming to the Kennedy Center,” Killian quips. The shop also carries music toys for kids (including those kazoos that drive parents wild); knick knacks like miniature composer busts, pencils and key rings; biographies of musicians and composers; tote bags and t-shirts. Nonprofits and schools get a 10% discount on most music.

Killian herself is “not an accomplished musician by any means.” Mostly, she focuses on being the retail and business brains behind Foundry and surrounds herself with employees, many of them Yale graduate students in music, who can answer customers’ questions. In retirement, Killian hopes to run the shop full-time, but for now she checks in on her way to and from her IT job on nearby Church Street. She enjoys being around musicians, who “have a different slant on things” than IT people, likening the relationship to the one between architects with vision and big ideas and contractors with nuts-and-bolts knowledge. “I’ve learned a lot from customers and from the people that I work with, because I’ve had really talented people working for me,” she says. “It’s nice to be around people who have different ways of thinking about things.”

Killian isn’t the first Marcia to run Foundry Music. The store’s founder, Marcia Stevens, was a New Haven pianist active in the city’s music community. She chaired the Friends of Music at Yale, was a board member of Neighborhood Music School and sat on the board of New Haven Symphony Orchestra. She was awarded the first C. Newton Schenck III Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, according to her 2007 obituary, for “her willingness to contribute time and thoughtful counsel to new, innovative and risky ideas, which have made her an indispensable part of the development of the arts center on Audubon Street.” Her son, Jay Stevens, continues to work in the shop today.

All of Foundry’s staff, Killian says, offer a level of customer service that, like sheet music shops, has mostly become a thing of the past. “When I was a kid, they used to measure your foot before they brought you a pair of shoes to try on,” Killian recalls. “That’s the kind of thing that we do. For instance, someone will call and say, ‘My mother used to sing this song to me when I was a kid. It’s an Irish song, it goes kind of like this…’” Foundry employees will then do the “detective work” to try to find whatever customers are looking for, Killian says, “and a lot of times we’ll find it.” They’ve even helped computer-challenged customers order from eBay when the shop isn’t able to source a product itself.

As for non-musicians, Killian sees them as potential customers, too. The shop carries “tons of things” for adult beginners. “Learning an instrument is a good way to exercise your brain, and it’s fun,” she says, adding, “It doesn’t have to be a huge investment.” Recorders in the front case, for example, start at $9.99.

Killian herself is an adult learner, though not a beginner. Like so many children, she grew up taking piano lessons. Recently she tuned her home piano, but when she tried to start playing again, she found her “left hand was just so stupid” that she had to get an exercise book for it. Finding time to practice is also a problem.

Owning the music shop seems to provide some inspiration not only for customers but for Killian, too. As she locks Foundry’s door for the night, she adds that someday she’d like to play the viola. If she ever does, she knows where to get her music.

The Foundry Music Company
102 Audubon St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Wed 10am-6pm, Thurs 10am-7pm, Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-3pm
(203) 776-3650 | sales@foundrymusicco.com
www.foundrymusicco.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features Marcia Killian.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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